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Dudley switches offensive to Oak Harbor utility hikes

Oak Harbor City Councilman Scott Dudley listens as fellow Councilman Rick Almberg responds to his criticisms concerning communication between the Oak Harbor School District and the city over prospective utility rate increases.  - Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor City Councilman Scott Dudley listens as fellow Councilman Rick Almberg responds to his criticisms concerning communication between the Oak Harbor School District and the city over prospective utility rate increases.
— image credit: Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times

Years of annual rate hikes for three of Oak Harbor’s four utilities were approved this week with barely a peep from the public.

Only two people commented on the proposal during a public hearing at City Hall Tuesday, Oct. 5, and both are City Council regulars that speak on just about every topic. In fact, the only contention whatsoever over what is usually a hot topic was among city officials.

Reading a 2009 letter from a top Oak Harbor School District official concerning the rate proposal, City Councilman Scott Dudley charged city staff with doing a poor job of communicating the possible impact the hikes may have on organizations such as the school district.

He singled out Mayor Jim Slowik, criticizing him for a last minute correspondence to Superintendent Rick Schulte that occurred earlier the same day. He also hammered the city for doing a poor job of informing customers who will be affected the most of the impacts they will see over five years.

“We failed to do that, and I’m disappointed,” Dudley said. “I look at these rates and see them as extremely significant.”

The rate hike proposal was essentially an overhaul to the city’s water, sewer, and storm drain utilities. Both the rates and the policies that govern them were altered based on a comprehensive cost-of-service analysis by a Seattle-based engineering firm.

Some of the changes will have adverse effects on select organizations. For example, discounts once enjoyed by organizations such as school districts and churches will be phased out over the next five years.

Slowik acknowledged that he was late in responding to Schulte’s communication but said the situation isn’t as simple as Dudley implied. For one, he claimed Schulte responded to his correspondence and “is satisfied with what we are doing.” Furthermore, he said Schulte reported that the transition plan, and changes to impervious surface areas, will actually decrease the district’s bill in 2011.

“But this is a bigger problem of communication and it plays both ways Mr. Dudley,” Slowik said.

While he didn’t get the letter out as soon as he’d hoped, he said Dudley was obviously aware of the situation and never bothered to call him with a reminder or to say he believed it was a priority. Instead, Dudley chose to address the issue in the public arena after it was too late.

“If you’ve got something that bothers you, just give me a call,” Slowik said.

City Councilman Rick Almberg also resented Dudley’s implications about communication with the school district, calling it a “gross mischaracterization.” He said Schulte is a personal friend of his and that he knows “for a fact” that communication between the superintendent and the mayor has been ongoing.

“I think that it’s just out of school to characterize and speak for somebody else in this council when they don’t have the facts straight, again,” he said.

Almberg also commented that he believes the rate increases are necessary and can’t be looked at as taxes. They are the cost of services that all city residents rely upon.

City Councilman Bob Severns also addressed the need for the rate hikes, saying that while he shares Dudley’s concerns about how they will impact the public, the City Council is elected to ensure that such services are supplied and maintained for the public.

“I’m convinced there is no perfect way to do this,” Severns said.

The proposal passed with a 4-1 vote, with Dudley being the only council member to vote nay. The new rates will go into effect beginning in December.

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